What lessons should we take from Google’s announcement that it will be sunsetting Conversational Actions, the apps that 3rd parties could build atop Google Assistant?
To us and many observers, the announcement is far from surprising, but it still feels significant.
Here are some quick takeaways on what this means for Google, developers/brands, users, and the voice industry at large.
Reading the tea leaves
Full disclosure: For the last five or so years, RAIN has enjoyed partnering closely with the Google Assistant team, and built many great custom actions on behalf of our brand clients (from Headspace to ABCMouse to Nike). There was a lot to like in the existence of a 3rd party marketplace on Assistant. Google Assistant offered a viable alternative (or complement) to Alexa for brands looking to distribute or extend the reach of their services, product or content to a voice-interactive channel with meaningful scale (~33% of smart speaker owners have Google devices, to say nothing of the huge Android mobile install base domestically and globally).
But it was becoming clear that, compared to Alexa, Google persistently struggled to help developers reach their goals, whether that was its app store’s subpar web presence, insufficient enticement to build and co-promotion of what brands did build, or missed opportunities for algorithmic surfacing of branded apps around generic questions or requests (admittedly, a very hard problem). As many other developers have observed, traffic on Google often lagged Alexa for parity-functionality apps, despite the theoretically huge audience. Perhaps fortuitously in hindsight, Google was not as as top of mind for brands looking to tap into big tech assistants as Alexa was, at least of the brands which RAIN has spoken and worked with.
Google has also hinted at this move before in its emphasis on App Actions and helping brands make more of their existing investments in Android, where the Assistant is a front door into apps, rather than a platform to recreate similar functionality. This makes sense when it’s costly to support discoverability and monetization on a new channel, and you have an already-thriving mobile channel where voice could be used enhance the customer experience.
What does this mean for Google?
Not that much, when all’s said and done.
Insofar as the Actions on Google opportunity never quite developed into what Google, brands and independent developers really wanted it to be, shuttering it does not necessarily hurt Google in any material way.
No doubt, Android App Actions (which Google is pushing as its alternative to custom actions) will continue to get better and more apps will take advantage of this, much as they will with the new Siri App Intents released at WWDC. RAIN is currently implementing both of these platform shortcuts for clients where the “front door into the app” opportunity is compelling for users on-the-go.
And despite some controversies, Google continues to hammer away at its LaMDA generative AI and offers a compelling first-party assistant, with an unrivalled voice search knowledge engine inside every device.
But this sunsetting figures into a long line of #killedbygoogle products. One could argue this is simply strong product management playing out and a boldness to prune what isn’t working. But you could also argue that developers will start to be wary of how much trust to place in Google as a source of partnership around initiatives in voice and conversational AI.
What does this mean for users?
Some dissatisfaction & confusion - but not on a scale for Google to care much.
But what about the users, comparatively small though their numbers may be, who enjoyed regularly using conversational actions? Perhaps there was a favorite they used every morning? Some of them - in fact, many - are children! They loved being able to use a voice-first interface to access games, education, and other services, without being required to stare at their mobile devices. The personal (and, one could argue, objective) value of the devices taking up space on their furniture just went down - and their Google brand affinity may have taken a small hit because of it.
What does this mean for brands and independent developers?
Sunk costs, new skillsets required, and for many, a decision to go elsewhere.
Now, all Google Assistant-specific developers have to become Android developers if they want to reach new users, a markedly different skill set and effectively, starting-from-scratch. This audience may have been small enough, especially in the third party independent developer community, to not be of concern to Google. But it’s still a difficult pill to swallow that hard work done over months and years is to be shelved, regardless of its quality or appeal today.
What does it mean for Alexa (and to a lesser extent, Bixby and Siri)?
Consolidation of voice-first developer/brand focus, and Alexa Custom Assistant validation.
The Alexa team has remained “long” on 3rd party partnerships to grow Alexa’s value prop and to support the developer community. Alexa needs to continue to support skills because there is no fallback to a mobile brand app marketplace, and it needs to play nicely with other platforms through initiatives like the Voice Interoperability Initiative (VII) to continue to be relevant everywhere it can be. So while Amazonians may feel some empathy for the challenges at hand for Google, this can’t be taken as anything but positive news for Alexa, where brands that invested in Google previously and those that may have in the future, will now be headed to Alexa (or will opt for a custom assistant - more on that later). Not to mention how Alexa Custom Assistant offers a direct response to the challenges of 3rd party marketplaces like this.
Bixby, forward-thinking though its vision and tooling may be, may benefit slightly, but chances are, its 3rd party marketplace is similarly plagued and has a higher hill to climb to entice developers.
Siri now looks to be roughly at parity with its mobile device and mobile assistant rival in Mountainview, with its reluctance to open a Siri marketplace and recent evolution of shortcuts. The nuances of how App Actions & Siri Shortcuts evolve will likely be meaningful, insofar as both companies are betting on companies wanting to surface their mobile app slices strategically to root-level assistants.
What does this mean for the voice industry overall?
More movement toward custom assistants, be they from-scratch or Alexa-based.
We’ve been beating the custom assistant drum for a number of years, arguing that brands developing their own assistants is a more durable long-term voice strategy than relying on the big tech players for distribution and tooling.
Never before has this risk of platform reliance been so glaringly apparent.
As brands consider the various avenues to enact their voice strategy - on their devices or in their apps, vs. on a big tech assistant - their choices just got a bit simpler. And, Alexa is set to offer solutions to both ends for the brand decision tree - Alexa-device-distributed-skills, or Alexa Custom Assistants that enable skill functionality in the brand’s owned devices and ecosystem.
That said, there are many competing approaches to custom assistant development, and this news could serve as a proof point to any brand that reliance on big-tech to deliver a key customer experience touch point can be a risky, fleeting bet.
Lastly, Google has likely redistributed its staff working on 3rd party actions well ahead of this announcement, but it stands to reason that there may be a small chunk of talent in the marketplace considering new opportunities. Look out for potential future-ex-Googlers, from designers to developers, on the look out for new work!
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